Arts writer James Woodall, who recently interviewed Peter Brook in Paris, discusses the themes of The Valley of Astonishment and Peter’s previous work…
To create theatre based on one of our more imprecise faculties, memory, might seem a bit like trying to make a painting of the sky, or compose a symphony based on silence. In devising The Valley of Astonishment Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne have, however, had an ample dose of the very component that gives memory its shape: time.
Some seeing this new show might recall seeing just over twenty years ago a wonderful play from the Bouffes du Nord, also exploring the mind, called The Man Who. It was inspired by neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. That book’s, and the play’s, subject was individuals with extraordinary mental conditions, more physical than psychological, in which their brains played debilitating tricks on them. The eponymous man who mistook his wife for a hat was afflicted with visual agnosia, able to identify familiar objects only through the music with which he associated them.
That quiet play was the opposite of Peter Brook’s tumultuous dramatisation of the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, premiered in southern France in 1985, and first staged in English in Glasgow two and a half years later. Yet The Man Who was, like the ten-years-gestated Mahabharata – and like so much of Peter’s theatre – minted from extensive research and concentrated hours of reading, discussion and improvisation. As is The Valley of Astonishment.
None other than the late Harold Pinter had handed Peter a copy, probably in the late 1970s, of Sacks’s book Awakenings (1973), about patients returning to normal life after decades in a strange state of sleeping sickness that struck after the First World War. “This is remarkable, you must read it,” Peter remembers Pinter saying. (Pinter also wrote a play, A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Awakenings. The Robert de Niro-Robin Williams film version of the book appeared in 1990.) Peter also managed, with his legendary persuasiveness, to get Sacks to consult with his Paris troupe over the twelve months or so while The Man Who was put together.
Ideas had taken root and a process begun. Nothing of Peter Brook’s ever arrives ready-made. With a mind that still teems with familiarising metaphors, he likens his work to what you do in the kitchen.
“We listen and reconstruct a certain condition, trying it out until gradually – for me this is the basis of all work – you have form, as in cooking. It’s the end of a process. Until you’ve actually taken it out of the oven you can’t know how it’s crystallised. You might have a recipe but you never start with the form.”
A fair guess is that Peter has been thinking about how to “stage the brain” for over thirty years. On the way to The Valley of Astonishment, there have of course been famous theatrical forays into South Africa (The Suit and Sizwe Banzi is Dead), Shakespeare (The Tempest and Hamlet), Mozart (Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute) and Mali (Tierno Bokar).
But a crucial staging post on the road to tonight was a 1998 production seen neither in English nor in Britain, Je suis un phénomène (“I am a phenomenon”). In this warm portrayal of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist active in the 1920s and 1930s (played sixteen years ago by Maurice Bénichou), Peter’s investigations into neurology took an exuberant turn. Shereshevsky could, simply, remember everything; his story was from The Mind of a Mnemonist (1968), by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria (a hero, as it happens, for Oliver Sacks). Shereshevsky’s life as a mnemonist-in-public resembled, as Je suis un phénomène beautifully displayed, a circus.
“He ended,” says Peter, “a very unhappy man. He got caught up in performing, and developed a greater and greater terror of each performance not being up to standard. Just like an old actor, he felt such suffering if it wasn’t a good performance, and such relief if it was.” In Je suis un phénomène, Shereshevsky became a victim of his own freakishness: the play’s exploration of a vast memory hinted finally at human tragedy – but with no melodrama and certainly no overstatement.
It is thus to reveal no great secret that a certain amount of the 1998 French play turns up in the 2014 English one. Importantly, The Valley of Astonishment is lighter (in all senses), yet more diffuse than its predecessor, perhaps even more compellingly theatrical – and funnier. Je suis un phénomène was in fact originally intended to be a film; in its journey to The Valley of Astonishment, Peter attributes much of the re-transformation to his close collaborator.
“None of it,” he explains, “is directly from Luria’s book or from our old film script. What we’ve gleaned from them has been rewritten by Marie-Hélène, not least of all in the protagonist going from a man to a woman. The ideal person for this was Kathryn Hunter. The journalist she plays, Sammy Costas, is a very different figure from Shereshevsky. In our new story we’ve found a way for her to get to a point where she is liberated.”
So the story has moved on. And the one that Kathryn Hunter tells in this vibrant play, together with her two fellow actors, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill, will, with such elegance and the minimum of fuss, astonish…
You can read James’ interview with Peter Brook in the programme for The Valley of Astonishment, available before each performance for £3.